14 AUGUST 2004, Page 27

Don't you tu-toi me, thou impudent fellow!

Recently Stephen Bates of the Guardian rebuked me for having Herbert Sutcliffe address the young Len Hutton in demotic speech, on the grounds that Sutcliffe had acquired a posh accent. It is true that his family was upwardly mobile. His dad, beginning working life as a bobbin-turner, used his savings to buy and run a hotel. Young Sutcliffe was commissioned into the Green Howards (a famous Yorkshire regiment) in the first world war, and in the second war rose to the rank of major. As Christopher Martin-Jenkins wrote in his DNB entry, 'Deliberately turning his Yorkshire accent into one more associated with Oxford. he sent his children to private schools.' He was a stickler for the proprieties in all things, to the point where he turned down the invitation to captain Yorkshire on the grounds that such a job must be done by an amateur.

All the same, he may well have addressed Hutton, then only 16 or 17, as 'thou'. I remember well at that time, the mid-1930s, being thee'd and thou'd (as a child) by grown-ups who 'spoke properly' to their peers. Sutcliffe and Hutton both came from Pudsey (as did Ray Illingworth) and the old boy must have known Len when only a lad. Anywhere north of the Trent, the true dividing line of England — separating the short `a's from the long ones — children expected this form of kindly patronage. The distinction between those you thou'd and those you you'd was very ancient, going back to the 13th century in Middle English colloquial speech. It was copied by the still Frenchspeaking ruling class from the defensive usage of the Loire nobility, who used 'vous' among themselves even in the singular, but `tu' or `toi' for social inferiors, This was still true in France even when I lived there in the 1950s — you tu-toi'd children, Arabs and other indigenes or autochtones, and animals.

What is particularly instructive, and well brought out in David Crystal's nutritious new book, The Stories of English, is that by the 16th century a parent, addressing an especially beloved child, raised his or her status and used 'you'. Hence, in that disastrous first scene of Lear, the King, speaking to Goneril and Regan. uses 'thee and thine' but asks his favourite Cordelia, 'What can you say to draw! A third more opulent than your sisters?' And again, 'Mend your speech a little/ Lest it may mar your fortunes.' But when Cordelia persists in refusing him gross flat tery, he becomes angry and switches to the condescending second singular, 'Let it be so; thy truth then be thy dower!'

Using 'thou' instead of 'you', which persisted in the north long after the south had scrapped the distinction, should not be confused with the misuse of pronouns, and their grammatical inversion. It is true that such errors were more common in the north than south of t'Trent. When I was a boy in the Potteries of north Staffordshire, where demotic speech was unusually ferocious, it was said that a child, refusing to respond to a mother's summons and chided by a passer-by for disobedience, replied, 'Er inner a-calling we. Us dunner belong to she.' But the little tale is too good to be true. [never heard anything approaching this atrocity.

I did not actually acquire Potteries speech, which is sharper and more ejaculatory than the accents further north. But I can imitate it, and differentiate between it and south Lancashire and the (quite distinctive) West Riding. Indeed, I flatter myself I have quite an ear for accents. Recently [identified the place of origin of a well-educated writer, an expert on Jane Austen et al., because I could detect Cheshire undertones in the speech, combined with a slight hint of north Wales. I guessed Chester and she actually came from the nearby Wirral peninsula. I have put a lot of Potteries demotics in the little memoir I have written about my childhood there in the 1930s. I have called it The Vanished Landscape because the old Potteries I knew, with their thousand bottle-topped pot-banks and the appalling (hut romantic) pollution, have quite gone. I have illustrated them too with my line-and-wash drawings, cudgelled from memory, old photos and sketches made by my father. Not only the physical landscape but the old rough hut warm speech too has gone, and I am hoping that the BBC's wireless people will allow me to read some of it when the book comes out in October. My recollection is that all kinds of authority figures thee'd and thou'd children — librarians, for instance, sweetshop owners, stationmasters, barbers and cinema managers, 'Ere, thou in tiourth row! What dost think thou'rt doing, lad? Behave thyself!' An Irish master at the Christian Brothers school in Trentham would have said, 'Have behaviour!' But schoolteachers definitely did not thee-andthou you; it was regarded as 'common' — an early form of PC. However, my recollection is that the grand old Earl of Derby, called 'The King of Lancashire' in the 1930s, did use the singular when talking to children north of the Trent, though not when he was lording it in London. He used short 'a's too, being proud of his northern origins, as did the magnificent Marquess Curzon. However, I was never personally thee'd by old Derby (let alone Curzon, dead before I was born) and I may have imagined it; my memory is not always to be trusted, being the only creative part of me.

Imitating an accent in speech is one thing, getting it down correctly and convincingly on paper is much more difficult. Even that genius Kipling could not always manage it — his characters in Soldiers Three, Irish, Yorkshire and Cockney, jar on my ears, or rather eyes, though he is brilliant at doing Indian speech and thought-forms, which he does in many varieties, including babu, hillfolk, Afghan, Punjabi, etc. 'Doing the Irish', which baffled Trollope and even (in my view) Charles Lever, was one of the strong points of Somerville and Ross, who were particularly good at genuine Irishisms of speech — women have a better ear and more retentive memory than men — and could plausibly distinguish between Dubliners and Corkmen, Kertymen and Ulstermen.

The first English writer who deliberately and successfully 'did' accents was Chaucer, in this as in so many other ways a creative pioneer. He not only devised two styles of speech, high and low, or lered (learned) and lewed (common), for a variety of class distinctions in his poetry, but he also in the Canterbury Tales introduced northern speech. In that superb piece of bawdy 'The Reeve's Tale', his two strident heroes, John and Aleyn, who get the better of the crooked miller, Simpkin, seducing both his wife and daughter and contriving to have him biffed on the head, are both northerners and speak as such. In another bit of clever philological detective work, David Crystal elucidates their divergence from `standard' late-14th-century southern drawl — no easy matter, for Chaucer, being ultra-popular, survives in many scores of manuscripts, and some copyists officiously corrected the northernisms, or added to them for a bogus consistency. Heigh-ho! Now that the BBC, following the recommendations of the barbarous and philistine Annan report, have abandoned 'correct' speech as undemocratic, we have no standard against which to measure the slovenly yobacular of the affluent rabble — what I call post-telly chaotic. What will we be gabbling by 2050?